Engage your horse’s back for a more powerful pattern with this exercise from World’s Greatest Horseman-winning trainer Ron Ralls.
By Ron Ralls, with Abigail Boatwright
When a horse travels with his head up—even if his chin is tucked—and the back is lowered, there’s a greater distance between the front feet and the back feet. This means that the lower the back is, the more spread apart those front and back feet are. The horse is slapping the ground hard with his feet but his hind end is trailing out behind. He is not collected. He doesn’t have his hocks coming up underneath him, an important part of creating accuracy and balance through the turn. If the horse turns a barrel with a hollowed-out back, he’s going to hit the ground hard with his front legs. He’ll bounce, and he may even hit the barrel.
If the horse is used to lifting his back in response to your cues, when you come into a barrel and you need to rate the horse by picking up your hand, he will do it with his back picked up and his hind legs driving way up underneath him, which makes for a better turn. It will be balanced, smoother and your horse will have a lot of power to finish the turn and fire toward the next barrel.
I do this exercise every day throughout the training session, as long as the horse knows how to have good forward motion. I often start before the horse ever sees a barrel pattern. The goal is willing, fluid, forward motion with the back picked up a little bit, which will encourage a longer stride behind, and bring the shoulders up underneath the horse. Horses automatically get soft in their chin as they get forward motion.
This exercise is an ongoing process every day once the horse understands what you’re asking of it. If your horse doesn’t know to respond to your cues by raising its back and collecting itself, then work on it a little bit every day— making progress each time, but not hammering on the horse.
I outfit the horse in either a snaffle bit, or if the horse is a bit older, a gag bit with a smooth snaffle mouthpiece. On a young horse, I do very little with his face at first. I just want him to jog around a big circle and let me guide him in both directions. Once I’ve got good forward motion and I can guide him around the circle right where I want him and he’s solid at that, I’ll start working on picking his back up. But it’s imperative to me that the horse has good forward motion first.
Start with forward motion on a large circle. Get the horse trotting, and if the horse starts hollowing his back, put pressure on him with your calves, and pick your hands up lightly to make a little contact with the horse’s mouth. Continue to ride the horse forward with your legs into your hands. Eventually, the horse will lift its back, and initially, he may try to shorten his stride because you’re holding his face. Just keep driving the horse forward and keep your hands steady, until you feel his back lift up with his stride staying long. When he does that, he’ll automatically get soft in the chin. Then relax your hands and continue driving with your legs.
You may only get three or four strides before he comes apart and hollows out again. If he does that, don’t turn him loose with your hands—slowly pick up and take the slack out of your reins, and ride him forward with your calves.
For the finished product, ideally, the horse will stay framed up and continue to ride forward into your hands when you ask him.
Your more experienced horse that is used to running barrels with a hollowed back and strung out behind is going to be insulted when you take up contact with your hands and ask him to go forward. He’s going to think he can’t go forward. For that horse, I’ll get on and get him warmed up at a walk and a trot. Then, riding with a bit of contact with my hands, I’ll nudge him forward with my calves with my hands picked up.
Sometimes a horse picks his back up easily; sometimes he’ll hate what you’re asking for a minute. And for some horses, in 10 minutes they’ll be able to do this at the trot and do it decently. But then, when you move on to the lope, it becomes really difficult.
In both of these cases, if you keep the horse moving forward at a walk or a trot with good motion, and you stay consistent with your hands, your horse will eventually concede the point and lift his back. You just have to stay there with him, riding him forward with your lower leg bumping his sides. Not your spur, just your calves.
If your horse isn’t used to traveling with its back raised, be cognizant of his head. He could resist your request by throwing his head in the air. Don’t lean forward as you’re working with your horse on this maneuver, or you could connect with a sudden head toss.
You might have better luck keeping your horse going straight if you guide it onto a large circle. A lot of horses, if they don’t know how to do this drill, as they’re learning, they’re drifting in with their shoulder, drifting out with the ribs—they’re just all over the place. But if you get them going forward, in a circle, you’ll have a better chance of keeping them going properly.
When you do get the horse to lift his back, don’t keep asking for more face. Their chin will naturally get soft and come to you a little bit when the back rises, but don’t keep asking until the horse tucks his chin to his chest, as that’s not the goal of this exercise.
If you get a good response from your horse, move on to something else and be satisfied. Don’t try to get two weeks’ worth of work done in one ride. Know your horse. If your horse is the hot and tempermental type, work to get a little bit of a response both directions, and move on. Just keep moving forward— don’t backtrack on your training. Work on getting him to pick up his back a little bit better, a little bit more, each direction, and then quit. Tomorrow is another day again.
Article originally published in the December 2017 issue of BHN.